Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 29, 2005
He walked his Christian talk
Anthony-Frederic Ozanam ministered to the poor of Paris
Blessed Frederic Ozanam — September 8
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Prestigious Notre-Dame-de-Paris Cathedral witnessed on, Aug. 22, 1997 the beatification by Pope John Paul II of Anthony-Frederic Ozanam, an enthusiastic lay crusader who promoted the ideal of the "practice of Christian living."
This event resulted from a challenge, directed to Frederic in godless, early 19th-century France, to express his faith in actions rather then discussions. Ozanam's reaction was the establishment of what would become one of the most familiar charitable societies in the western world.
In 1831, the 18-year-old enrolled in the faculty of law at Paris' famous Sorbonne. A devout Catholic, he soon joined with some like-minded fellow students in a small faith-centred discussion group. Frederic and his friends attended nearby Eglise St-Etienne-du-Mont and were noted for openly expressing their Christian views.
This relatively comfortable life would be jolted by a challenge from a non-believing classmate who suggested that Frederic's religion consisted of much talk and little action, a stance seemingly at odds with Scriptural teachings.
Responding to this, he and six companions became determined to adopt a lifestyle of charitable action and to minister to the material needs of the poverty-stricken families of newly industrial Paris.
In the hope of emulating the holy man, they chose as patron of the new society an early worker among France's poor, the apostle of charity, the peasant priest who established homes for the ill and indigent. Based in Paris, Vincent de Paul in 1625 founded the Congregation of the Mission of secular priests and was co-founder of the Sisters of Charity. Following his canonization in 1737, he was proclaimed patron of all charitable societies.
In 1844, Ozanam, recognized as a brilliant lawyer and author, was named Sorbonne professor in literature and became involved in a number of causes in addition to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Regarding the latter, he soon encountered opposition, particularly from Church authorities who had retreated into conservatism after surviving the French Revolution and who considered his stressing of material aid to the poor to be excessive.
His movement experienced a setback in 1848 when a popular Paris uprising was violently suppressed with much loss of life.
The society survived, but he was isolated from his Church and in poor health, resigned his teaching position and died on Sept. 8, 1853.
By this time, the society had spread throughout Europe and was active in at least three Canadian cities and the U.S. Today, there are almost a million members worldwide, one-tenth of them in Canada.
Visitors to Paris' Latin Quarter can experience a bit of the world of the founders. From the Sorbonne, they may cross busy Rue Saint-Jacques and follow narrow streets through Place-Ste-Genevieve to the church.
It's dedicated to first Christian martyr St. Stephen. His statue and that of St. Genevieve, graces the building's fa‡ade, a familiar city icon. Containing the shrine of Paris' patron, this active parish sees three Masses celebrated daily.
Those participating in the Eucharist in the choir between the old and new altars have the opportunity to experience a sense of the environment that influenced Frederic and his friends to re-direct their lives almost 200 years ago.
Many visitors to St-Etienne combine attendance at Mass with tours of the historic church and of the adjacent Pantheon, an earlier shrine to St. Genevieve.
In the church, one of the many subsidiary chapels is devoted to St. Vincent de Paul and in it, appropriately, is displayed a marble medallion with the profile of Blessed Frederic above a caption recording the founding of the worldwide society.